Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Washington Irving (1783-1859)

Author, Essayist, Biographer, Editor, Artist, Diplomat
Born April 3, 1783, New York, New York
Died November 28, 1859, Sunnyside, Tarrytown, New York

Washington Irving enjoyed a long and varied career full of travel, literary success, wide friendship, and celebrity. He is considered the first American man of letters and one of the first (if not indeed the first) American writer to make his living solely with his pen. Despite being a biographer of George Washington (for whom he was named), Christopher Columbus, and Oliver Goldsmith and despite serving with the American legation in London and other diplomatic posts, Irving is best known today as the author of two stories, "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." If you cast the net of weird fiction widely enough, you'll catch both tales. The latter of the two even found its way into the twentieth century magazine Weird Tales.

You'll find Irving's biography in any number of places, on the Internet or at the library. Instead of the broad facts on his life, I'll include here some trivia:
  • Born in the last year of the Revolutionary War (Wikipedia erroneously claims 1783 as the last year of the American Revolution), Washington Irving was named for George Washington, whom he met at age six and about whom he wrote a monumental five-volume biography.
  • Irving was active even into his seventies. He died in his sleep at age seventy-six in November 1859, a month after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. With that, Irving can be said to have lived his entire life bracketed by the two great wars of American revolution.
  • Washington Irving is credited with coining the phrase "the almighty dollar"; with popularizing the name "Gotham" for his native New York City, thus providing Batman with a name for his own city; and with asserting that Europeans in the time of Columbus believed that the world is flat.
  • In using the pseudonym "Dietrich Knickerbocker," Irving lent his name to the NBA basketball team the New York Knickerbockers or Knicks.
  • Irving is also responsible for an early image of Santa Claus as a man carried aloft in a flying wagon. Charles Dickens (another teller of weird tales) was indebted to Irving and his version of Christmas in Dickens' Christmas Carol. (You might say that the debt was passed through the generations to include the author Seabury Quinn and his 1938 Weird Tales story "Roads.")
  • Irvington, established in 1870 and now a neighborhood in east Indianapolis, was named for Irving as well. Weird Tales author Catherine L. Moore grew up in Irvington before moving farther west towards downtown Indianapolis.
  • Irving wrote four stories that appeared in Weird Tales magazine. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is the most famous of these and received the Disney treatment in 1949. Less well known is that "The Legend of the Moor's Legacy" has also appeared in an animated version. (I just found out about it ten minutes ago.) It's in Russian and was made in 1959. You can watch it on a website called Daily Motion, here.

Washington Irving's Stories in Weird Tales
"The Lady of the Velvet Collar" (Feb. 1927; reprinted in Magazine of Horror, Apr. 1965; originally entitled "The Adventure of the German Student")
"The Legend of the Moor's Legacy" (Mar. 1928)
"The Specter Bridegroom" (June 1928)
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (Nov. 1928)

The Headless Horseman has become an icon of American culture. He appeared in fine art as early as 1858 (the year before the author's death) in this painting, "The Headless Horseman Pursuing Ichabod Crane," by John Quidor.
He has also appeared on innumerable books covers . . . 
Record covers . . .
And even on postage stamps. 
Washington Irving's work has been translated into other languages, as in this Italian edition.
His characters have been drawn by artists as varied as David Levine (1963) . . .
And Frank Frazetta (1995).
Washington Irving's fiction was even adapted to an animated short subject in the Soviet Union. Here's the video cover for The Legend of the Moor's Legacy, originally from 1959.

Text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Some nice drawings, thanks for sharing!
    Hard to say, but Frazetta failed – as his headless horseman looks like his Death Dealer, Conan or Tarzan … just without a head! He never was good at drawing creepy stuff, everything turned out "heroic".

    Young Bernie Wrightson ("Swamp Thing") did a pretty nice comic story around 1960s/70s, lovely artwork, just black and white.

  2. Hi, Axel,
    I really like Frank Frazetta's work, but I tend to agree with you on this one. Like so many artists--writers and visual artists alike--he became more of a parody of himself as he grew older. Believe me when I tell you how hard it is for me to say something like that. Anyway, he struggled with health problems later in life--his eyesight, his stamina, even his mental state suffered for it. Maybe some of his lesser works as an artist can be attributed to his struggles.
    Thanks for writing.